Lineman returns to the field after cancer recovery

After being diagnosed with leukemia for the second time in May 2018, Spriggs underwent a bone marrow transplant. Now, he plans to return to the football team in fall 2019. Photo by Jack Clendening

Fifteen feet by 15 feet. That’s the size of the hospital room Hunter Spriggs, an offensive lineman for the Chapman football team, was trapped in for two months. It’s called a “positive pressure room,” designed to keep out bacteria while patients are hospitalized.

Spriggs, a senior business administration major, was first diagnosed with leukemia in July 2017. After treating it with oral chemotherapy, the cancer came back May 2018, with a mutation of the original form called acute lymphoblastic leukemia, along with a second aggressive type, called chronic myeloid leukemia. He underwent a bone marrow transplant in August 2018 and more chemotherapy. It “annihilated” his bone marrow, he said.

“You’re basically put in a cubicle for a couple months while they kill you,” Spriggs said.

As Spriggs sat in the Attallah Piazza, discussing his experience recovering from a debilitating second diagnosis of leukemia, he looked strong, his muscles showing through his shirt as he leaned forward. He seemed almost like the same player who had weighed 265 pounds during his sophomore season and enjoyed overpowering his opponents on the field.

But there was a time months earlier when that muscle was stripped, when Spriggs’ weight plummeted by 50 pounds and when he was the weakest he’d ever felt.

“When people have to help you out just to sit up, that’s when you hit a low,” Spriggs said. “You’re stuck in this freeze frame. You go from this huge, strong, college football player to now, ‘I need help eating.’”

The first day he received chemotherapy, Spriggs went into anaphylactic shock and had a seizure. He described the recovery process from the bone marrow transplant as a “huge low.”

“I remember the first time after transplant, I went to the bathroom and I looked in the mirror and I didn’t even know my own name,” Spriggs said. “That’s how clouded your brain is.”

Leaning back in his chair, he rolled up his sleeve to reveal a small scar from a healed hole in his tricep. The hole, he said, was made for his treatments and IV line. He then pulled the hem of his shirt down. On his chest, the side directly opposite from his heart and an inch higher, is a slightly larger circular scar.

“This,” Spriggs said as he pointed to the healed hole, “is pretty intense, because it’s a fat-sucker and they have to give you your stem cells through that, some fluids to take blood through it.”

Just two weeks after his chest port was taken out, Spriggs went back into the weight room. He took about 50 pills a day, a combination of immunosuppressant drugs, and wore a mask to protect against bacteria. He got out of chemotherapy and the transplant in record time, he said. But even after what he’s been through, he feels lucky.

“For me to even be here at school or even do all the workouts and running is unheard of,” Spriggs said.

He returned to school two days before the start of the 2019 spring semester. Even though he hasn’t played any games, he’s built strength back by participating in team football workouts.

“Sometimes (after the workouts), I would literally have to go home and pass out for three hours,” Spriggs said. “But I was happy. I made progress. I don’t need 100 percent progress. All I need is 1 percent every day.”

He’s at 90 percent strength, his speed is back and his agility’s fine, Spriggs said. He feels like he’s on track to accomplish his — goal getting back on the field. When asked about the prospect of battling with a defensive tackle for the first time since his sophomore year, he started to chuckle.

“I feel bad for the guy, because I’m willing to die out there and he for sure is not. In my mind, I’m just living in bonus time,” Spriggs said. “I have nothing to lose in my life … I’m willing to sacrifice myself out there.”

Spriggs said the key to his recovery was the “internal fire” he kept going. He learned to put up his hands and fight rather than pout, he said.

“People don’t realize the only thing stopping you from being as strong as you want to be is right up here,” Spriggs said, pointing at his head. “After going through all the chemotherapy, I found out how much pain you can physically take before you pass out or you black out. And after that, you’re like, ‘OK, this didn’t kill me. Nothing’s going to stop me from here on out but me.’”